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Russian government releases official coronavirus website with multiple errors and internal contradictions

Source: Meduza

On March 16, 2020, Russia’s executive cabinet released a new website: стопкоронавирус.рф (stopcoronavirus.rf). The site is intended to provide officially approved information about COVID-19 and about how Russia is fighting the coronavirus pandemic nationwide; a number of other governments already maintain similar websites. Following the launch of stopcoronavirus.rf, nearly all Russian state media sources and numerous government officials have begun citing the new resource. Nonetheless, the website appears to have been built in quite a hurry. For example, until recently, notes from working drafts such as “Health Ministry clarification needed on hospitalization” could still be seen on publicly accessible pages. Other sections appeared on the website more than once. While many of the medical recommendations offered on the site were helpful, others were scientifically dubious or in direct contradiction with one another. Darya Sarkisyan and Farida Rustamova reviewed the errors on the website and asked who exactly is behind it.

Ambiguous, vague, or incorrect information

  • The website claims that nobody in Russia has died of COVID-19. In fact, one COVID-19 patient has passed away, and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin acknowledged the loss as part of the pandemic. However, all official sources soon began describing the patient’s cause of death as a blood clot.
  • The website warns Russians that those who violate quarantine measures could face criminal charges and up to five years in prison. However, that warning does not specify that most quarantine enforcement penalties only amount to a small fine, and a five-year prison sentence can only be applied when somebody dies as a result of someone else’s negligence in spreading the virus.
  • The website indicates that the new coronavirus can be spread via dust particles in the air, but the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the U.S. and Canadian governments do not recognize any such transmission path. One research paper only mentions dust transmission as a theoretical possibility. The virus is known to travel through airborne droplets and through surface contact.
  • The website recommends wearing surgical masks on three different pages and explicitly indicates that healthy individuals should wear masks when traveling or going out in order to prevent infection. However, the WHO and numerous other organizations have recommended against using scarce personal protection equipment unless the wearer is sick or caring for sick patients.
  • The website advises readers who experience symptoms of COVID-19 to visit a doctor, order a home visit by a doctor, or call an ambulance rather than attempting to get well at home alone. However, both Russian medical professionals and officials outside Russia have recommended against placing additional demands on the medical system when many cases are best treated in isolation.
  • The website recommends avoiding crowded areas, individuals with respiratory symptoms, and close physical contact such as hugs and handshakes, but it does not mention that all individuals should remain at least six feet away from anyone they don’t live with at all times even if the individuals involved appear to be healthy.
  • While the website recommends handwashing or sanitizing, it does not specify how or for how long readers should wash their hands. Its instructions for handling coughing or sneezing are similarly vague.
  • The website claims that the WHO has not documented any transmission of the new coronavirus to or through pets, but the WHO has in fact recorded a case in Hong Kong involving an infected dog.

Internal contradictions

  • In one instance, the website recommends washing one’s nose with salt water after going out. In another, it indicates that there is no evidence of such a practice preventing coronavirus infections. The latter point is derived directly from the WHO’s website.
  • On one occasion, the website indicates that the new coronavirus doesn’t transfer through food and can’t be infectious if it remains outside a living organism for more than six to 10 hours. On another page, however, the site indicates that food and other everyday objects can transfer the virus. In reality, while food is not considered a significant means of infection, the virus did originate in edible animals and has been found to survive for up to three days on some surfaces, so it is important to observe proper food hygiene.

Who wrote this website?

Stopcoronavirus.rf was launched simultaneously with a new coordinating council for the coronavirus pandemic within Russia’s executive cabinet. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin leads both the cabinet and the coronavirus council. In response to questions from Meduza, a representative for Mishustin’s cabinet said Russia’s Digital Development Ministry was responsible for creating the website.

Developers at the ministry received data and information for stopcoronavirus.rf from the Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) and the Health Ministry, with the COVID-19 coordinating council providing some assistance. For example, when we asked the cabinet’s press service for the source of the website’s claims about transmission via dust particles, representatives cited “the official Russian Health Ministry website dedicated to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Stopcoronavirus.rf is edited by an autonomous but state-founded noncommercial organization called National Priorities. Russia’s executive cabinet created the group late last year to advertise a series of large-scale national projects engineered by Vladimir Putin. Dmitry Chernyshenko, a deputy prime minister responsible for public information relating to the coronavirus pandemic, chairs the supervisory council for National Priorities. Cabinet representatives said the organization has led their coronavirus website’s construction because it has the necessary “editorial resources” to do so.

Alongside National Priorities, Moscow City Hall is also working on stopcoronavirus.rf, as is an autonomous noncommercial organization called Dialogue that was founded by the city’s IT department. A government-run coronavirus information center was recently built onto Dialogue’s infrastructure and graced with a visit from Vladimir Putin himself. Meduza has already reported on the center’s leadership. The executive cabinet’s press service indicated that the new center “is doing everything to ensure that current, objective information” about the virus can be distributed to the public.

Story by Darya Sarkisyan and Farida Rustamova

Abridged English version by Hilah Kohen